ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers on Monday, Dec. 14, approved a $216 million deal to provide grants to business owners hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and extend unemployment insurance to workers through April.
Legislators returned to the Capitol for the seventh special session of the year Monday afternoon and while they were only required to consider an extension of the state's peacetime emergency, they also sent to the governor's desk a COVID-19 relief package.
The measure would make available $88 million in grants for Minnesota businesses that lost 30% of their revenue or more due to the pandemic and state response, $14 million for movie theaters and convention centers and nearly $115 million that counties could hand out to businesses that might not meet those criteria. The plan would also extend Minnesota unemployment insurance through April. Benefits were set to run out this month.
Money could get out the doors to restaurants and bars, theaters, convention centers and other businesses heavily impacted by the end of the month. And that comes as business owners complete a month-long shutdown with additional closures possible.
Lawmakers and business groups celebrated the bill's 62-4 Senate approval, hailing it as a lifeboat for businesses about to sink. The plan passed on a 117-13 vote in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers for weeks worked to craft a plan that could aid business owners and workers amid the latest round of state restrictions and shutdowns.
"Really Minnesotans are looking for a lifeline," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said, "and although we are hoping the federal government will take the kind of action that they need to and provide the kind of substantial relief that Minnesotans need, we're stepping in at this moment to provide a package that will help workers and businesses and families."
But Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said, "It’s not going to build a bridge to a long-term business strategy" as the pandemic continues to rage on.
"(Business owners) are going to lose their retirements, their livelihoods, their homes if they’re not allowed to open," Benson said. "That’s very real for them and if we don’t acknowledge that that is part of the damage that is done by these shutdowns, then we are missing the boat."
A plan to provide another $500 one-time payment to families on the Minnesota Family Investment Program didn't make the final cut in the compromise bill and other aid proposals dealing with child care, food grants and Minnesotans experiencing homelessness could also come up later if bipartisan support couldn't be reached Monday, lawmakers said. Democrats who'd brought forth the proposals said the needs would remain without legislative action.
They also raised concerns about restaurants and bars not having more ability to sell alcoholic beverages to help pad their bottom lines. Sen. Sandra Pappas, D-St. Paul, introduced an amendment to allow restaurants and bars to sell greater volumes of beer and wine to-go, as well as to-go cocktails and beer growlers, but her effort came up a few votes short.
Pappas said the proposal had broad public support and that leadership could have called a hearing on the topic if they wanted input. Legislative leaders said proposals outside a prenegotiated compromise could doom its passage.
"I don’t believe there were any hearings for any of the bills that are before us today," she said. "These were all negotiated in private workgroups and so I don’t think that’s an excuse that we can use here today."
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and industry group Hospitality Minnesota applauded the package but also said business owners needed more to survive the sustained punch thrown by the pandemic.
And while the relief was expected to be signed into law, more than 150 business owners said they were prepared to open this week in violation of Gov. Tim Walz's executive orders, saying they couldn't endure them any longer. The shutdowns on restaurants, bars, gyms and areas of public entertainment were set to lapse Friday, Dec. 18 without state intervention.
Some raised concerns about the business grant program applying to restaurants or bars that had opened or planned to open in violation of the state's executive orders, House Majority Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said the actions of those establishments shouldn't delay payments for other needy business owners.
"If we create a program where all these verifications and checks have to take place, the money will get out the door much later, and frankly too late, for all the businesses that are following the rules," Winkler said. "So if one-hundred-and-whatever number of businesses want to make a political statement, they're entitled to do so but we shouldn't be ruining this program for all the other businesses that are out there doing the right thing."
Attorney General Keith Ellison has sought and courts have granted restraining orders against restaurants, bars and gyms acting out of compliance with the executive orders. And at least one bar had its liquor license suspended for violating the orders.
Lawmakers also voted for the seventh time on whether to extend Walz's coronavirus peacetime emergency powers. Some Democrats and Independents joined the Senate Republican majority in a 40-25 to revoke Walz's powers. The effort didn't have enough support to come up for a vote in the DFL-led House early Tuesday.